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Untangling Canada's data accountability deficit Add to ...

How can the federal government continue delivering necessary services to Canadians while freeing future generations from burdensome debt? This question will dominate the nation's debate on next year's budget.

Treasury Board president Tony Clement has announced an attrition strategy - an across-the-board hiring freeze and the laying off of 700 public-sector employees. Tom Axworthy, of Queen's University, has recommended a freeze on all contract workers, while Don Drummond, former chief economist of the TD Bank, has suggested that Ottawa target programs and departments deemed inefficient.

All of these solutions reflect a "business as usual" model, and they're unlikely alone to suffice. Perhaps we should consider something more radical. Instead of simply relying on cutting particular programs or freezing hiring across the board, we should focus on an entire function of government, one that cuts across all departments and programs and involves both full-time employees and consultants: the information-technology/information-management function, and the personnel who run it.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already observed that by "consolidating our fragmented computer systems across government … we can save all kinds of money." But neither he nor the government, by themselves, will be able to deal with the problem. Only the public itself can force the necessary change.

Here's the difficulty: For years, government departments and agencies have developed their own systems for gathering and managing the information they require. The result: Every department harbours its own small army of computer and support staff - data-base administrators, programmers, report generators, employees who maintain countless Excel spreadsheets, each wedded to its own rapidly antiquating and mutually untranslatable system of information.

The problem is well known. Yet, almost every attempt that government itself makes to engineer change becomes bogged down and expensive. So the answer must come from pressures created by forces outside government. Individual departments and agencies, except for those dealing with national security, should create an inventory of their IT infrastructure, their requirements and how they anticipate moving forward. Let the open-source technology community identify the types of new technologies and solutions that could address the problem. Let interested Canadians add suggestions.

Then issue a request for proposals from technology providers, based on the criteria developed in this wisdom-of-the-crowd fashion that works so well in the tech universe. Keep the discussion going as the project is being implemented, so the community can keep the provider on track. Privacy of data would be paramount, but the process of how the information is collected and used could still be open.

One might well discover, in this process, that many of the existing systems and applications now run by government have maintenance and operating costs that greatly exceed the cost of developing and running entirely new solutions. The collective insights of the greater IT community and concerned Canadians can thus be harnessed to deliver a more transparent process that will be more responsive to the needs of Canadians and the government.

The process of bringing greater transparency to government's information systems will have another profound consequence: Those systems will then be able to bring greater transparency to government itself.

Government's accountability deficit is, in large part, directly attributable to its Rube Goldberg information systems. Hobbled by outdated technology, and often unable to collect or generate the reader-friendly data necessary for the public to monitor their performance, departments have had to hire a raft of consultants, in-house analysts and Excel spreadsheet experts to rummage through their files, ferreting out the information required to meet accountability standards, all greatly adding to the cost of providing information that should be available at the click of a mouse by an end user.

Instead of real-time evaluations of government operations (standard in the private sector), a five-year cycle has come to suffice. And because raw data are not always available, narrative reporting has become mainstream. Narrative reporting - the collecting of case studies that illustrate program successes and failures - is entertaining but highly subjective and often not indicative of the overall performance of a given program.

We can attack government's accountability deficit just as we attack its fiscal deficit, but only if we enlist the public in promoting an IT revolution in government. This is a case of "physician, heal thyself." For government's information systems to make government more transparent, they'll have to become far more transparent themselves.

Deborah Moores has worked in the information-technology business and in government.

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